Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

What makes a product “fit” a market? Or how to achieve product-market fit?

A relatively young term in an entrepreneur’s vocabulary is “product-market fit” (PMF). Attributed to Marc Andreessen in 2009, this term, has a relatively simple meaning but one that’s hard to really get a sense of:

Product/market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.

If you go after an awesome market – growing fast, has excellent demand and a great growth curve, then you’ve got 90% product-market fit, even though technically 50% of the challenge in any startup is coming up with a good product.

Lets assume you are going after a great market.

How do you know its a great market? Besides the fact that its large (obvious) the speed of adoption is tremendous.

What then makes a product “fit” a market?

First there are 3 important assumptions I make:

1. The best team does not necessarily create the best product.

2. The best product does not necessarily win in the market.

3. It is rare for startups or entrepreneurs to create markets.

A product “fits” a market when

1. Your metrics for adoption of your product exceed adoption of all your “competitors” combined (Instagram had more downloads in 1 week than other competitors did in 6 months)

2. There are so many missing features in your product but its still being sought after (HotorNot had no other features except an upvote and downvote)

3. The problem you solve for the user is such a big one that they are willing to forgive the lack of “nice to have” capabilities (during its early days, Twitter kept crashing daily)

The first point (metric) answers the question – What should I measure to know when I have achieved PMF?

The second point (features) answers – How can I tell?

The third point is the most important. To know about problems that are painful and large there’s one thing you need to learn:

Learn how to ask the right questions.

—–

Relevant links that I would highly recommend you read:

1. Jeff Bussgang on why early in the product cycle entrepreneurs should be hunch and not data driven.

2. Andrew Chen on “When” has a product-market fit been achieved?

3. Ash Maurya on the 3 stages of a startup and why problem-solution fit comes before product-market fit

4. Patrick’s perspectives on steps to product-market fit.

P.S. Thanks to my good friend Dorai who asked me to write about this.

May you be blessed enough to make a thousand mistakes once, not one mistake a thousand times

I have a good friend (lets call him Bob) who worked at a Fortune 50 IT technology company for 21 years. After reaching the top of his organization (partnerships), he then left, for a startup to head up their partnership and business development efforts. He was their first “suit” / “business guy”. The startup was funded by a very well known venture firm in Sand Hill, had 21 people (mostly engineers, product managers and the like) and a hot product in the networking (infrastructure) space. The interview and courting lasted many months, so he was confident he made the right choice.

He could not have been more excited during the first week at work. There was creative energy and fresh thinking daily, new and yet unsolved problems that had no obvious solutions and he felt he was finally “learning again”.

In in the 2nd week the cofounders and he had a catch-up lunch, when they told him “they needed to go another direction and his position was to be eliminated” and they’d like him to leave. No other reason was given, but just that they were not ready for a BD person at this time, since the company was going to pursue another route.

I recall him telling me over lunch a few weeks later, when he mentioned that he was not totally shocked, but it surprised him for sure. We did some Monday-morning quarterbacking and figured it must have been either his inability to fit into their “culture”, which was very developer-centric or his relatively higher salary.

A few years went by and he continued to be friends with the co-founders and met one of them for a catch-up lunch.

The conversation was enlightening for sure. The co-founder was more candid and particularly said “most of the engineers said the amount and breadth of experience that my friend possessed was narrow and limiting”. Which shocked Bob, since he had really “21 years of experience”. He had dealt with all types of ISV‘s – small and large, had experience with all the system integrators, from consultants to outsourcers and had connections at every level.

The cofounder then said “Yes, but you did practically the same thing for 21 years, not 21 different things in a year”, which skewed your thinking to solving every problem literally the same way.

Bob was shocked for sure, but he took it in stride and in the meanwhile had started his own BD consulting company, helping many startups navigate the large ecosystem of partners.

Over the next 2 years of his consulting he claimed to learn a lot more than he had in his 20+ years at the F50.

What did he learn that he did not know before?

“I found more ways I could be wrong and more mistakes I made daily” he said. “With a large brand name on my business card, those mistakes were largely ignored. They were a lot more magnified when you are dealing with others who now have that large brand name on their business card.”

The perfect startup team: Asterix and Obelix

Asterix vs. Caesar

As a child (and even now) I was a huge fan of Asterix and Obelix. I would spend hours reading and re-reading Asterix and son and imagine what it would really be like if I had special magic powers. The possibilities were endless.The names were funny. The fights were amazing. The adventures were awesome.

I did believe for the longest time that the Silicon valley folklore of “Two guys and a dog startup” came from Asterix and Obelix.

On a more serious note, I think there are 3 amazing things about them that make them the perfect startup co-founders.

1. They really respect and enjoy each others company. You can see it in every book and episode. Obelix is the one everyone makes fun of (since as we know he fell into a cauldron when he was a kid) but he’s also the most dependable. They each have their quirks (Obelix loves boars and Asterix, is just nuts for most parts).

2. They compliment each other amazingly well. One is a superhuman (magically gifted) and another learns (or drinks magic portion) his way into super-power. Asterix is supposedly the smarter of the two, but Obelix shows his smarts (Corsica, Spain).

3. They are both focused. I love this the most. They do fight (like most people do) but they know the real enemies are always the Romans. Most episodes do have some fight between the two, that brews for a few pages or panels, but put them in front of a common enemy and they are back to being old friends again.

If you are a startup team, I’d highly recommend you read a few of their comics and keep a few in your office. Things always get tough in small startups and when the going gets tough, the tough laugh it off.

If you have read any of the comics, which one is your favorite?

Dont remind me that I am “stup*d”. I know that already. SaaS Application User Experience

I had a teacher in 6th grade who disliked me. Not sure why. He was both our class teacher and taught us English literature. I was the new kid in town and new to the school and (worse) I was from Bombay (Mumbai to you younger folks). That automatically meant my Hindi was way better than my English.

He’d point out every mistake I’d make in front of the entire class for the first few weeks. Grammatical errors, misplaced pronouns, adjective modifiers, were all mentioned in every essay, every book report and composition for everyone in the class to mock. Seemed to me he liked picking on me. In fact since this was the ’80’s even calling my “stup*d” was par for the course.

What’s he got to do with SaaS applications?

Many of the applications I use are like that teacher. I hate them. I have to use them, but I hate using them.

I make mistakes. Every user makes mistakes. As humans we are all prone to making mistakes.

Your application does not have to make me feel stup*d each time I make a mistake. We all have significant others who perform that role very well thank you.

Your application has to help me recover from that error. 

Let me give you an example:

I was trying to setup an account with a new SaaS app.

Username, password (twice) and 3 seconds later:

“That username is taken already” in BOLD RED.

10 seconds later, new user name, password (twice again) and again:

“That username is taken already” in SCREAMING BOLD RED.

15 seconds later, new user name, password (twice) and:

“Your passwords dont match” in BLOOD (mine) RED.

I gave up with the signup.

What you could do?

1. Give me username suggestions that you believe dont exist in your database already.

2. Check after I have typed the password the first time and give me some responsive feedback before I submit the 2nd time so you can see if the passwords match.

3. Use my email address as a user name.

But dont remind me that I am “stup*d”. I know that  already.

P.S. That teacher from the 6th grade. Turned out to be my champion by 8th. The trick – my mom’s bisi bele bath. Two days a month I’d get mom to cook rich, flavorful and finger-licking BBB and suddenly he was my “protector”. The way to a man’s heart is absolutely through his stomach.

Great convocation speeches (graduation speeches) to read again and again

I was trying to collect great convocation / graduation speeches so I could share it with my daughter. Here are the 5 best I have read so far.

Don’t work. Be hated. Love someone.

Steve Jobs with Be hungry. Be foolish.

J K Rowling and the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.

Bill Gates and improving your odds doesn’t guarantee success.

Larry Page and finding a path to make your dreams real.

Usage matters more than distribution; Or why every startup will start to hire “psychology majors”

The usual challenges that entrepreneurs face with a new idea is first the execution of the idea itself. I.e. come up with a product / service that solves a problem or does something new and different.

Then the problems of gaining customers (or users) becomes top of mind. “How do I increase awareness of our product?” is the irst big question. Which is why most potential investors ask questions around “marketing & distribution” model, which primarily is a way to find out how are customers going to a) find out about and b) gain access to the product.

Awareness is still a large challenge for most companies, but digital marketing (SEO, paid search, facebook advertising, etc.) helps solve that problem for most startups in a way that can scale.

For companies who target audiences who are not primarily on the Internet (which is rare, but still those audiences do exist) their options are still old school (newspaper ads, radio, etc.)

Distribution typically becomes the next challenge after awareness. Now that people are made aware of your product, how do they consume it? Channels help solve the problem in some ways. E.g. If you are building a smartphone application, app stores are a great way to ensure your customer’s can access the product via the store. Now the only challenge is back to awareness, which can be solved by the mechanisms mentioned before.

The new age challenge though is all about usage or “customer engagement”. Assuming awareness and distribution are solved, the problem is purely one of getting people to use your product.

Which is why with most new products the selling starts after the sale is done.

After a customer buys and downloads or signs up for your product, you have to get them to use it. Which although is within your control, is a huge issue. Why?

Primarily because there are way too many things competing for the users attention.

The best ways companies have solved this “usage and engagement” problem is to focus on answering the question – how can I make the product a natural fit into the users “habit loop” – which is cue, routine, reward.

I think going into the future every startup will start to have a psychology or human sciences major to understand how to deeply ingrain their product into users natural habits.

Being a tough negotiator is overrated, be articulate at convincing instead

Early in my entrepreneurial journey I would hear a lot of Silicon Valley folklore about certain founding CEO’s (Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy’s name would come up a lot) who were “tough as nails negotiators”.

The other thing I head from the guy I bought my first car from (yes, I would take advice from anyone) was a pithy “You never earn what you deserve, you only get what you negotiate”.

I resolved to be a bad-a** negotiator and wanted to cultivate a fearless reputation as being difficult to crack under pressure.

I even signed up for one of those negotiation training seminars, which you see in the center-fold of airline magazines.

Boy was I ever more wrong. (Actually I have been more wrong consistently, but that’s another series of blog posts).

Here’s the deal. As an entrepreneur you rarely have the position to have the “upper hand in any negotiation”. Realize that quickly and you’ll be more humble and have less chutzpah.

There are 3 main constituents you have to deal with to negotiate frequently – customers, investors and employees. Realize that when you are small and new they have all the leverage and you have, well, your vision, energy and some potential stock which may or may not be valuable.

When I founded my first company, I had a prospect we were chasing for several months. Eventually after a lot of effort we got to the “negotiating table” after the technical team had given us the go ahead, and asked us to “hammer out the details” with their finance and procurement team.

I was adamant on price, which we believed we deserved a premium for, because we were “proven”, so there were 4-5 clauses we were negotiating. One of them was being a reference, second was payment terms and some others were inclusion of maintenance and support for the first year (it was 19% of the license sale).

After multiple phone calls and getting nowhere, they and I realized we were stuck and I pulled the “I am going back to the technical champion and tell him we cant work out a deal”. I was seriously under the assumption that they had no alternative solution so I could “throw my weight around”. I was willing to give on some parts of the negotiations, but was deemed as inflexible by the procurement guy at the other end.

Well I did go back to the technical champion and he asked me to go back to the procurement person else they would “build it in house”.

This time the procurement person was even more inflexible and suggested a 15% discount on top of our negotiated price. I stuck to the price and focused on the other terms, only to find that the entire deal was up for renegotiation. Every term and clause was up in the air.

My intention to be a “hard negotiator” lost us 6 weeks of payment and cost us 8% discount on prices.

After the deal, the procurement person (a much older and smart individual) gave me a tip on the “Japanese way of negotiating”. He said, first admit that you have little negotiating leverage (this is totally opposite to what most entrepreneurs in the valley will tell you) and then have them work with to give you want they want and you have the ability to give them what they want. Then mention to them that here are the 3-4 things they need and ask them for the 3-4 things they need from the deal. Then it becomes more of a convincing opportunity as to why you need those 3-4 things as opposed to a confrontational hard negotiation.

Its a different technique (and there are several I admit) that works very well for the party that does not have much leverage in a negotiation.

The “two speed” state of Indian market adoption

I have been watching / following 7 startups (3 in eCommerce, 2 in SaaS and 2 in consumer Internet) that target the Indian market over the last 14-18 months. All the entrepreneurs approached me with an intent to get seed funding so I had a chance to go over their traction, progress and future projections.

I have formulated a theory of market adoption of products / high technology products in India which I have tested with these and other companies and also with several venture investors.

For background please read “Diffusion of innovations” by Everett Rogers and Crossing the chasm by Geoffrey Moore. Don’t worry, I have only linked to their Wikipedia page, so it wont cost you anything.

Diffusion of innovations

At the top of the consumption (and monthly income) pyramid in India are what economists and marketing people call the SEC A and B class who have enough disposable income to spend on innovative new products. For the purposes of this blog post I am going to use 10 Mill (SEC A) + 20 Million (SEC B) households as the target.

The Innovators (less than 1 % of the population or 12 Million individuals) in India (entrepreneurs mostly) who conceive and develop these products for the Indian market and the early adopters (less than 5% of population or approx 60 Million individuals) together make up the entire “early adopter” category. Unfortunately less than 30% of them have both the interest, and the desire to be early adopters of technology.

Indian markets do not follow traditional diffusion characteristics when first innovators buy, then early adopters, then the early majority, and then the late majority and finally the laggards.

My theory on how diffusion of innovations works in the Indian context is as follows.

In India there are only 2 market adopters – those that are early and those that are not.

Abhijeet calls it the “low hanging fruit” and then everyone else.

So lets look at the implications of this observation / theory.

So what does that mean for entrepreneurs?

You will see a “headfake” of adoption and then a taper off.

E.g. The B2B SaaS company will quickly (within 3-6 months) get 10+ customers and over 30 in the pipeline, only to find the next 50 and the next 100 or the next 1000 are either non-existent or will come in 3-6 years.

E.g. The eCommerce company will see 1 -3 Million “registered” users and 1000’s of transactions within 12 months and find that the next 1000, 5000 and 10,000 transactions take 4-5 times as long.

E.g. You will see an initial 20,000 users for your mobile application for social TV extremely quick (within 3-6 months) and the next 50,000 or 100,000 take you the next 3-6 years.

I have seen these numbers play out again and again to know there are exceptions but those are rare.

These numbers are also dramatically different than those of companies targeting US or other markets.

When should you (as the entrepreneur) raise money?

You should raise it at the peak of inflated expectations. I.e. After you have some traction, which the investors think will be long lasting, steady and rapid. You will get the best valuation for the company at that time. Once your investor has some “skin in the game”, they are in to get their money back and then some, so they will do all it takes to make you successful.

 

Trough of disillusionment

What does this mean for investors?

The best time to invest is either very early (starting to build a company, idea and team stage) OR at the trough of disillusionment stage.

If they are early, you will get the bump from the initial adoption, so the value of the company increases many fold before the next round (which you should help the company raise at the peak of inflated expectations.

If you are post the trough, then you benefit from a growth stage.

What makes you go over the trough to the slope of enlightenment?

In my experience:

TIME

Nothing else.

You may think I am being facetious, but I am serious.

This may be a cultural thing, but in India, over time if you have the ability, patience and willingness to survive, you will reach the plateau of productivity.

Anecdotal evidence over several sales transactions also suggests to me that once people in India see you around for 2-3 years, they think “Okay, this company / person is for real. We should give her / the product a shot”.

Big thanks to Abhijeet and Shekhar for helping me with their data points to reinforce my theory.

The startup ecosystem in India is schizopherenic

Okay now that I have your attention with that ridiculous headline, let me define a few things first.

Schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder that makes it difficult to:

  • Tell the difference between real and unreal experiences
  • Think logically
  • Have normal emotional responses,
  • Behave normally in social situations

Lets try and list all the players in this ecosystem. I have provided this list sorted by the importance of the player to the ecosystem (obviously this is my opinion and hence biased).

1. Entrepreneurs – the heart and soul of the ecosystem

2. Talent for the entrepreneurs (meaning people to hire)

3. The early adopters (Both consumer and businesses)

4. Investors – Angels and Venture Capitalists

5. Incubators and Accelerators

6. Universities & research institutions

7.  Advisors, mentors, coaches

8. Startup communities, media and events organizations

9. Service providers – lawyers, accountants, etc.

10. Larger companies for partnerships, distribution and marketing

11. (Dare I say) Government – yes for things such as incorporation, taxes, etc.

12. Cheerleaders and poster girls (or pinup guys if you like).

13. Successful startups and successful / failed entrepreneurs

14. Associations, government liaisons and trade organizations

15. Interested public

Do I have an exhaustive list? Probably not, but this is a good enough start.

Every player has something unique they bring to the table and has a perspective on what’s good and bad about our Indian startup ecosystem.

Even if we mostly stick to the technology space, we say one thing and do the exact opposite.

No wonder most entrepreneurs get confused.

1. We want more innovative product companies but we end up funding mostly me-too eCommerce companies.

2. We want to build the next facebook and Google and yet most entrepreneurs have a “consulting / services” company on the side to make money.

3. We want to work on cutting-edge technologies, but end up picking yesterday’s tech stack since “there’s a lack of talent’.

4. We want to encourage the government to participate, but end up bad-mouthing them at every event (One panel member even suggested they were out to kill startups).

5. We want to have a clean incorporation, but still choose the cheapest service provider to incorporate the company (a lawyer even told me yesterday, he has to turn down 2 companies a week who want his services for free).

6. We want to be first to try a new piece of technology but are unwilling to pay to be an early adopter.

7. We want to encourage more entrepreneurs to participate in an incubator, but keep ridiculous anti-dilution clauses to maximize upside.

I could go on, but you get my point.

Is this an India thing alone? No, I have seen many of the same in Silicon Valley as well.

But at the center of the valley is an entrepreneur with an idea who wants to change something and everyone else is rooting for her.

In India I dont believe we quite know who’s at the center. We make rock stars of our VC’s, large company CEO’s and Government officials.

So if you are part of this ecosystem I would request you to please keep only one question in mind when you have to make choices:

” Will this help more entrepreneurs get excited about starting a company in India?”.

Then please do the right thing and don’t just say the right thing.